Few changes since Houston cabbie background check flaws exposed by ABC-13

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Duncan Burton was held up as an example earlier this year of a broken background check system used by Uber, the taxi-like system where a car can be summoned by smartphone app.

Burton, though, was no billed by a Harris County grand jury. That decision did away with the potential charges that Burton raped a woman who says she was too intoxicated to give sexual consent when she got into Burton's Uber for a ride.

He's no longer an Uber driver, and the woman's lawyer say he never should've been due to his criminal past.

"Uber let her down," Kevin Michaels, the woman's lawyer said.

But the debate over Uber, Burton and his alleged deed overshadowed far larger problems uncovered by Ted Oberg Investigates.

Houston cabbies, held up as the gold standard by city officials as it relates to safety and background checks, have a myriad of problems and flaws, an ABC-13 investigation shows.

Hundreds of Houston cabbies are driving despite prior criminal convictions including drunk driving, driving without a license, drug dealing and domestic violence, records obtained by ABC-13 show.

All of this data was in the city's hands as the state legislature debated this year laws to govern the process.

It may seem our investigation would've been better timed back then. We agree.

ABC-13 asked for this data April 9 in the midst of the legislative session. Houston city officials didn't turn it over until the day after the session ended and lawmakers went home. Only then was Ted Oberg Investigates was able to go through it for this analysis.

City officials assured ABC-13 the delay was due to legal issues, not any intentional foot dragging.

This also comes in the wake of an ABC-13 investigation last year, which analyzed a string of people over a six-month period who were given taxi or limo licenses by the city of Houston, which must sign off on those licenses. In that period, 29 people with previous criminal convictions were given licences to drive people around the city.

Last year that cames to a 74 percent approval rate for that six-month period for those with a prior criminal conviction seeking to drive a cab.

See last year's original investigation here.

That approval rate is now 67 percent.

The city also keeps this information hidden from the public. The records, obtained by ABC-13 through the state's public records act, detailed the criminal backgrounds of those applying for cabbie licenses, but have never been seen outside the back rooms of city government.

All Uber background information is also hidden due to a court case in which Uber is fighting to keep company data under wraps.

When Burton's case first surfaced in April, Houston officials took great pains to point out that Burton had cleared an Uber criminal background check, but not a city criminal check. The city uses FBI data. Uber can't.

Uber maintains their system "has been designed with your safety in mind" and that their "thorough" background checks are the better and faster than the city's fingerprint process.

Uber somehow missed that Burton had been released from prison just two years earlier on federal drug dealing conviction.

"There are possibly gaping holes in Uber's background check process," said Lara Cottingham with the Houston Administration & Regulatory Affairs Department.

Houston city staffers hammered that point home repeatedly in Austin, telling state lawmakers who were considering laws making it easier for Uber to operate statewide that the Burton case was a good reason to let cities keep control of the process.

The city's "discussion points" for this hearing show a list of crimes Uber's background checks missed on multiple drivers.

"The list was quite long it included soliciting, assault, etc.," Cottingham said.

But here's a twist: If someone who wants to be a Houston cabbie is denied due to past criminal behavior, state law gives the driver an automatic appeal.

Appeals documents show some drivers with convictions similar to ones the city was so worried about Uber missing have won their city appeals.

ABC-13 found appeals winners with DWI convictions, fraud convictions and two with prostitution convictions. Four assault convicts won appeals to get taxi licenses in the recent past, and numerous appeals winners have drug possession cases.

In the span of a few months, the city gave licenses to at least five people with drug dealing convictions. That's a charge similar charge to Burton's.

"We are confident the system is working," Cottingham said.

But city officials are not advocating making the taxi licensing process more rigorous.

And that doesn't even make sense to the lawyer for the woman in Burton's case.

He's still working to get her case resolved in civil court and has concerns about who else is on our roads.

"They shouldn't be out on the road," he said. "I am glad I drive myself."
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